It’s kind of pointless to try and draw many conclusions from an opponent like VMI, which the Pack handled with ease on Saturday. State should dominate this team physically, and it did. The Pack was always going to own the line of scrimmage, and that’s what happened. Four backs averaged over five yards per carry to lead a rushing effort that eclipsed 230 yards. VMI had 15 rushing yards.
Saturday was a glorified practice, and that’s a good thing. State needed a cupcake to munch on after last Saturday’s repeated string of gut punches, and it took this as an opportunity to settle down. Armstrong and the receivers in particular needed to settle down, as both have had a mistake-filled start to the season, and that’s more or less what happened.
Armstrong had a strong showing from top to bottom. He was much more consistently accurate, which was a sticking point the last two weeks. The senior wasn’t perfect, but rarely are you perfect. He did his job as the quarterback, progressing through his reads well, making good decisions, and he only had two throws that could be considered misses, which makes for a really strong performance.
These things become easier to do when you can just camp in the backfield, and VMI’s consistent three-man rush was roughly as effective as a group of tackling dummies would have been. Armstrong needed an opportunity to stand in the pocket, and VMI gave him exactly that.
This was great stuff.
State tries to set up this combination of an out route and an outside go route on the right side, but the underneath corner sits down on the out. Armstrong works his way back across the field and delivers to Collins for a fourth-down conversion.
A lot of plays looked like this on Saturday.
State created some explosives on Saturday, but largely with yards after the catch. It didn’t take a lot of shots downfield due to VMI playing from a deep cover 3 shell the whole game. Above, you can see Armstrong pitch his tent in the pocket as the line disposes of a three-man rush, progress through the downfield routes. and check down instead when there is nowhere to go with the ball.
This ball to Timmons was the only true shot play he threw.
The blatant (and somehow uncalled) PI aside here, this isn’t a bad throw, but it has a better chance if Armstrong leads Timmons across the field and away from the safety a little bit more. Armstrong kind of straightens out the post for Timmons by leaving the ball too close to the right hash and it allows the safety to close and commit an uncalled pass interference penalty.
After watching the amoeba that was State’s offense last year, people want to see more of these shots down the field, and that’s understandable. State hasn’t ripped the top off the defense too many times through the first three games, but that has more to do with adjusting to the way you’re being defended than anything. VMI played a lot of cover 3, and it wasn’t asking its cornerbacks to get depth at the snap. It wasn’t trying to disguise it. It was out there with three safeties.
It's pretty light around the line and in the box. The safeties were getting a lot of depth at the snap too.
The strategy here for the Keydets is a common one for an overmatched team. It’s a blatant attempt to keep everything in front, concede underneath routes, and force State to string together long drives. It shortens the game, which increases variability. That was what VMI was trying to do, and it’s similar to what UConn was trying to do as well. State ran all over VMI and Armstrong had a field day against UConn. Neither team ever adjusted, because both had a speed disadvantage at the skill positions and that was their best chance to win the game.
It's worth noting that State only had seven offensive drives in this game (excluding the final one that ended in a kneel down). It scored on five, and four were 10 plays or longer, with a fifth reaching 9 plays. It was efficient offensively. It's not as if it was bad, it was just unable to generate of ton of explosive plays for the above reasons.
When you struggle to run block effectively, as NC State does, you’re going to get these coverages from teams that are operating at a talent deficit. It makes it very difficult to take a lot of deep shots, and forcing those is exactly what that defensive philosophy is hoping you will do. If you're wondering why it had to be that way for the Keydets, just look at what happened when VMI actually brought a blitz and tried to man cover State.
This was one of only a handful of blitzes VMI dialed up. Rozner makes easy work of the corner in man coverage and Armstrong throws a great ball with perfect elevation.
To NC State’s credit, it was patient in these games and took advantage of the holes the defenses were leaving. Armstrong didn’t force the ball. He’s made good reads for the most part this year. This would show up more if the receivers caught the ball and Armstrong had been more accurate through the first two games, but the decision making has been sufficient.
When you go back to the three picks against Notre Dame, only one was the result of a bad read. One was a drop and the other was a good read but a bad throw. Armstrong is making the right decisions and State’s game planning has been fine for dealing with the defenses it has seen. It obviously needed to execute better after the first two games, and the hope is the VMI game can settle that down.
If you want more explosive-play opportunities, you need to be able to burn teams for playing coverage and light boxes. That starts with running the ball. I don’t think there is any amount of running that would have forced that change from UConn or VMI, but if State can make teams pay for soft defensive alignments going forward, it should open opportunities.
Speaking of the run game, State's offensive line ate VMI at the line of scrimmage, and that’s no surprise. Anything other than that would have been alarming. I harbor a pretty significant amount of doubt that this will transform into a good rushing team this year, but it should certainly handle its business against the Keydets. The story here was Raphael, who ended up leading the team in carries and yards with 16 for 85.
Raphael is a touchdown runner. Running backs are often graded based on what they can do at the second level, as getting to the second level has more to do with the offensive line than the back. Raphael and Allen are both guys who can turn a well-blocked play into an explosive run, and not just one where a DB gets a tackle eight yards upfield. They’re young, particularly Raphael, and you have to develop the other elements of the position, but these are the two best pure runners State has a running back.
Defensively, State owned the line of scrimmage, which again, anything less would be of concern. The back end of the defense didn’t have a great day though, and this was a bit of a disappointment. State has excellent cover corners in Battle and White, but the Pack has had some issues this year with the new faces, and White’s precautionary absence made them more overt.
State still managed to be very vulnerable to play action. VMI thankfully is horrible, but they simply missed on opportunities they were able to create with the play fake.
This is a problem. Notre Dame did this all day, and while it’s not forgivable, such a thing happening in game two against a nationally-elite rushing team at least makes a little bit of sense. You can’t be doing this against VMI. You should not be biting on this stuff.
Teams have gotten State’s DBs into these situations a lot this year, and it’s been fruitful for the offenses. Terrente Hinton and Brandon Cisse fill out the two deep at corner, and they didn’t look ready for major playing time in this game. That's Hinton who is responsible for the tight end in the above play. He was also beat deep once, while Cisse committed two PIs and was beat for VMI's only touchdown. There are some concerns on the back end of this defense, more so than I predicted at the beginning of the year. Losing Jakeen Harris hurts, but a lot of this is just undisciplined play and/or bad technique. It's coachable, and these are very green players we are talking about, but it's definitely something to pay attention to.
At the end of the day, this was a practice, and getting reps for your backups at cornerback is important, because these guys are going to see the field again this year. It feels like a useful Saturday for State, and hopefully the result is a more sound and in-sync football team.